Share This Page

As other tortured franchises find success, Pirates' slide continues

| Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012, 12:45 a.m.
Christopher Horner
A fan holds a sign in the PNC Park crowd during the Pirates' 2012 season finale against the Atlanta Braves Wednesday October 3, 2012. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
A Pirates fan holds a sign in PNC Park crowd calling attention to the team's 20th consecutive losing season during the 2012 season finale against the Atlanta Braves Wednesday October 3, 2012. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
A young fan holds a sign in the PNC Park crowd during the Pirates' 2012 season finale against the Atlanta Braves Wednesday October 3, 2012. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Relief pitcher Jason Grilli is the last Pirate to leave the field after a 4-0 loss to Atlanta in the season finale Wednesday October 3, 2012 at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
A somber Andrew McCutchen tips his cap to say goodbye to the PNC Park crowd after being removed from the game during the eighth inning against the Atlanta Braves Wednesday October 3, 2012 in the 2012 season finale. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett says goodbye to the PNC Park crowd after being removed from the game against the Atlanta Braves Wednesday October 3, 2012 in the 2012 season finale. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
A fan holds a sign in PNC Park crowd calling attention to the Pirates' 20th consecutive losing season during the 2012 season finale against the Atlanta Braves Wednesday October 3, 2012. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett delivers against the Atlanta Braves Wednesday October 3, 2012 in the 2012 season finale at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

In early July when the Pirates were one of the big stories in baseball, another overachieving club picked to finish near the bottom of its division found itself lurking near the top.

But Baltimore Orioles Manager Buck Showalter advised caution about getting carried away too soon.

“It's a long season,” he texted to a reporter. “All things good and bad will be exposed in the Major Leagues.”

He spoke of his club, but he could have been talking about the Pirates.

Now it's October, and the Orioles finished strong, reaching the playoffs after 14 years of losing. Two other teams with bleak pasts — the Oakland Athletics and Washington Nationals — advanced to the postseason.

Not the Pirates, whose shortcomings were exposed during the past 7½ weeks.

From a perch 16 games above .500 on Aug. 8, the Oblivion Express began a steep descent and gained speed, lurching out of control before jumping the rails with Sunday's loss to Cincinnati at PNC Park. That extended the longest losing streak in the history of North American team sports to a fat, round, appalling 20 years.

“They don't call it a grind for nothing,” MLB Network analyst and former player Sean Casey said. “You find out what you've really got after six months.”

Baltimore's previous winning season was in 1997, but Orioles fans don't care about that now. Guided by Showalter's skilled hand, their team plays better than statistics might indicate. Oakland general manager Billy Beane is producing Moneyball II, molding a winner from the lowest payroll in the majors. Washington GM Mike Rizzo spent the past few years building a club that won the National League East after averaging 93 losses over the six prior seasons.

Yet the Pirates' losing streak continued. Manager Clint Hurdle said it's frustrating and encouraging that these former have-nots — but not his club — managed to turn things around.

“You need to be realistic and optimistic,” Hurdle said. “It's a disappointment, definitely. We were right there along with those clubs. They finished. We didn't finish.”

No longer terrible, the Pirates are mediocre, their 79-83 final record shows.

Hurdle, who steered a 22-game improvement since taking over after the 57-105 travesty of 2010, is encouraged “because the game is proving itself out to be, still, a game where you execute well over a long period of time, you're gonna have a chance to get in,” he said. “And it's not just big-money markets. ... The pitching for the most part has carried them, consistently.”

Casey, who grew up in Upper St. Clair and played for the Pirates and other teams, said of his old club: “I feel like they're going in the right direction.”

With relatively modest payrolls, Baltimore and Washington spent about $25 million to $30 million more than the Pirates' $61 million. Both clubs, and Oakland, wisely built from outside and within. Luck helps, too. After losing 102 and 103 games back-to-back, the Nationals got to draft Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.

The Pirates invested heavily in scouting and the draft, but the payoff has not arrived. Other than pitcher A.J. Burnett, notable player acquisitions have been rare. Absent front office exceptionalism, finances remain an issue, a story for 20 years. The team's payroll remains in the bottom five.

“It's a challenge,” said Detroit Tigers coach Gene Lamont, who managed the Pirates from 1997 through 2000. “You think you can conquer, you think you can do it. But in today's game, it's tough if you're not gonna spend any money.”

Other Pirates managers hampered by limited resources over two decades: Lloyd McClendon, Jim Tracy, John Russell and, of course, Jim Leyland, who again has the big-spending Tigers in the playoffs. Leyland managed the Pirates to three straight postseason appearances before quitting after the 1996 season when it became obvious that the club, then owned by Kevin McClatchy, could not compete financially and on the field.

“I was at the point in my career where I didn't want to go to the park knowing everything had to go perfect for us to win,” Leyland said. “That was the way it was gonna be.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bcohn@tribweb.com or 412-320-7810.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.